May 13, 2016
This week The Kitchen presents the world premiere of Mike Iveson's The Tear Drinkers, a suite of sci-fi songs for six performers. It follows four humans who have been abducted by the United States government and brought to an underground holding tank in New Mexico, so that the government can determine which of them is actually an alien from another planet masquerading as an earthling. A beloved fixture in the experimental performance community, Mike mounted his first full-length play with music, Sorry Robot , as part of PS122’s COIL Festival in January 2015. He has composed music for various choreographers and playwrights including Sarah Michelson, Sibyl Kempson, Mia Chung, DANCENOISE, and Kate E. Ryan, and has worked as a performer with companies as varied as Elevator Repair Service, New York City Players, Nature Theater of Oklahoma, and New Georges. Curator Matthew Lyons spoke with Mike about the genesis of this new piece and his process.
Matthew Lyons: You have had a diverse career in downtown performance as an actor, dancer, and composer. How did you arrive at musical theater as a form you wanted to explore?
Mike Iveson: Well, "musical theater" is a dreaded, loaded term–though I think the dread attached to the subgenre is a little silly. I just like songs and musicians but tend to get bored at concerts where musicians are playing songs. If that's all there is to pay attention to, I need something else to watch or follow as well to bounce the songs off of. So that is more or less what I am trying to do with this show: give you some songs and then give you something else to have to track at the same time. Set up a multitasking apocalypse for the audience. I would go ahead and propose that this setup speaks to our current smartphone-always-on, no-rest American mentality, but it would be bullshit.
ML: The Tear Drinkers is your second evening-length piece, following Sorry Robot. But the creation of the two works overlapped, right? Can you explain how the two shows were formed in relation to each other, if at all, or generally how you see them in relation to each other now?
MI: I wrote Tear Drinkers first. It's had a longer gestation period. I wrote Sorry Robot quite a bit faster. The best parts of Sorry Robot were generally the ones I wrote in a blinding haze because I had to have some material in hand before traveling up to the Orchard Project with a bunch of actors to workshop it. I had a little time to massage that show but not much, but the things that needed the least help had sort of come out fully formed. But I think the best parts of Tear Drinkers are the ones that took a long time, mostly when I was obsessing about them in residence with LMCC on Governors Island during the spring a couple of years ago, and they became clearer as I had the chance to workshop them over the years. The rules are sort of different with each show, is the truth.
The Bee Gees wrote those incredible early (late-'60s) melodies with their borderline-impenetrable lyrics generally in a day. And then Benny Andersson in the ABBA documentary says this amazing thing I always think of, that some days you just have to sit at the mouth of the cave and wait for the dragon to come out. The newest song in Tear Drinkers occurred to me while I was in a van in Cambodia in March, more than three years after I started work on the show...though I did cannibalize an older song to finish it. I think the two shows are pretty similar–they both have the problem of sci-fi exposition which is tough to do correctly (the practice I got on Sorry Robot was invaluable), and they both are tangled up with transformation and identity, which is probably a function of the fact that many of the songs are solo songs–that kind of format probably dictates the subject matter to a certain extent. I think Sorry Robot was a little more patently allegorical, or maybe in retrospect it looks that way.
ML: Can you talk about the cast and how you developed the characters in relationship to the people on stage?
MI: I workshopped it a few times mostly with the same actors. Then I did a version at PRELUDE with a couple different people; now almost the whole cast is different. This was just about actors' availability, but you learn much more about the characters when different people are embodying them... I think that the actors' roles in evolving this show has mostly taken the form of what I have them do musically based on their varying skill sets... the cast I have right now is fantastic.
ML: It has been three years since your initial summer workshop period here, when I first heard the songs. And there are a few that have been stuck in my head since. How do you approach this kind of songwriting and the lyrics?
MI: Yes, three years, crazily enough. Anyway, this kind of songwriting is best approached from a distance, with both hands in the air and your mouth wide open. Do NOT make eye contact. It also helps if you have a raw steak in one hand that you can toss into the bushes (then run for it). No but I have been doing this long enough to know that the lyrics have to drive the song, but the plot shouldn't drive the lyrics too much. The music is going to be fairly shameless, which is to say, mostly broad strokes and gut punches as well as some indefensible obsessions.
Photo: Mike Iveson